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Tuesday, 09 March 2021

Fast-track reconciliation

The Saudi announcement of opening its embassy in Doha tied the knot for a three and half years of total boycott

Ahmed Mostafa , Tuesday 19 Jan 2021
Main
A Qatari woman flashes her passport at Riyadh International Airport (photo: AFP)
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The details of the reconciliation agreement between Qatar and its neighbours, signed at Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit two weeks ago, still haven’t been made public. But Riyadh is fast-tracking the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Doha.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan announced this week that the Saudi Embassy in Doha will soon be reopened. At a press conference with his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Safadi, in Riyadh, Bin Farhan told journalists that the issue was “just a matter of logistics”. He added that his country “will restore full diplomatic relations with Qatar”. Bin Farhan confirmed: “Our embassy will be reopened in Doha within days of completing the necessary procedures.”

That step follows on the heels of the end of a boycott by three of its Gulf neighbours, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain as well as Egypt (making up a kind of Quartet) during a summit in Saudi Al-Ula on 5 January.

After the summit, Saudi Arabia opened its land border – the only land corridor for Qatar - and allowed Qatari flights in its airspace. All these steps were followed by the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. It is not clear yet when the rest of the Quartet will follow Saudi Arabia in establishing full diplomatic relations with Doha.

In June 2017, the four countries severed all relations with Qatar, accusing the tiny, rich state of interference in their internal affairs, supporting and financing terror groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, and maintaining close ties with Iran. Doha vehemently denied the allegations, saying the boycott undermined its sovereignty.

Kuwait, which has been mediating between Qatar and the Quartet over the last three year, is upbeat about the rapid healing of the rift, despite the fact that none of the demands of the boycotting countries appears to have been followed, except for putting a stop to media campaigns.

A Kuwaiti analyst told Al- Ahram Weekly that full diplomatic relations between Qatar and the four countries will be restored soon. “Trade and investment between Gulf neighbours will kick off in full swing, for the good of the people of the whole region”, he said. As for the demands by the Quartet, he said that principles were agreed and details are being finalised through bilateral discussions.

For its part Qatar stressed that the reconciliation is not going to affect its relations with Iran or Turkey.

Another Gulf commentator was sceptical about the rift healing too soon, noting that ordinary people were fed a lot of negative propaganda for three years. He stressed that the fissures went deep to popular levels: “social media played a nasty role with trolls on all sides going far in spreading accusations and insults using the foulest words sometimes against leaders or elders and their families”.

Deep mistrust will not go away so soon, especially for those vehemently opposing political Islam like the UAE and sympathisers with Muslim Brotherhood like Qatar. As a Western analyst puts it, Saudi Arabia is used to shifts towards the Brotherhood and other Islamists. He notes that Riyadh “knew that the Brotherhood Yemen representative (Islah) was being supported by Qatar to sabotage Saudi efforts to rein in the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

But, to shore up the legitimate government which lacks popular support, Riyadh included the Brotherhood-affiliated Islah in the government.” He also referred to the time when Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries were supporting Islamist groups in Syria during the heyday of Gulf-Turkey relations.

A Dubai-based source downplayed the popular rift that deepened during the boycott and suggested that trade and economic relations will help overcome this. He also noted that the tribal nature of Gulf societies means that many families spread in many countries, and opening borders will mean these families will come together again and bury previous tensions.

On trade, a Gulf source confirmed that Saudi goods never stopped completely going to Qatar during the boycott – in many cases through re-export via Turkey. He claims that even with the “popular” Gulf boycott of Turkey in recent months, economic relations have not been dented.

Turkey is in fact the main party cautiously hopeful that the acceleration in normalising Saudi-Qatari relations will mean an opening for Turkey to come back to the Gulf, ending its isolation.

But Ankara is still waiting for any overture, especially from the UAE and Egypt. Both countries are not at ease with Turkey’s interference in the region and its support of terrorist groups.

Though the main conclusion is that Saudi Arabia is trying to form a wide “necessity alliance” to deal with the Joe Biden administration – especially on the issue of Iran – that alliance might not be solid enough and may end up replaying the previous accommodation of fringe groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which resulted in failed policy choices, as the Western analyst suggested.

With leaks implying that the Biden team have already started secret contacts with Iran, Qatar might be more informed about the anticipated agreement between Washington and Teheran than the Saudis. That in itself will complicate a speedy reconciliation between Riyadh and Doha.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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